“Time is what we want most, but what, alas! We use worst.”
- William Penn
My 25th birthday came and went this month and I have to be honest, I expected to have some life answers by the quarter century mark. Most of them are still eluding me. Funny how that works.
If anything, I have more questions now than ever before.
If you count summer jobs, I’ve already put a decade of my life into the workforce. I’ve been working since I was 15. That’s a decade of being responsible, tax-paying citizen! Over those 10 years, I’ve undergone a huge shift in thought regarding the concepts of careers, work and happiness.
My first attempt at collecting a check was working at the YMCA as a summer camp counselor. I was a sophomore in high school and I was itching to get that check in my hand so I could…come to think of it, I can’t really remember what I spent my money on. But it was nice to have money of my own for once.
It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that the situation definitely wasn’t everything it seemed. I found that while I was great at “pitching” myself during the interview, the work itself was… how shall we say… less than fulfilling.
I mean, what did I expect?
Now before you get all emotional and tell me that I’m a bad person for not loving being a camp counselor, you have to think about what that job really entails.
Screaming camp songs, cleaning up puke and fishing marbles out of the toilet for 10 hours in the blistering Florida sun with kids who often don’t want to be there wasn’t my cup of tea, especially for $6.25/hour. If you have the endurance, more power to you!
One week in and I was already burnt out. I really felt like I was being completely wringed of all my stamina. The work was extremely taxing for very little reward. And it showed.
I thought there was something wrong with me.
I was a newbie to the workforce. I thought I just had to “get my bearings”. Get into the “swing of things”, as they say.
I said, “well, maybe you’re not cut out for that. But you’ll find something.”
So I kept looking.
Over the next 7-8 years, I moved through a series of jobs. Man, when I tell you I tried everything… I tried EVERYTHING. Retail, restaurants, museums, camps, grocery stores… even UPS. Yes, the one that delivers boxes. Did I wear the uniform? You bet your little brown short-shorts I did.
Each one of them had a little piece of something I liked, but most of them left me feeling, more than anything, a sense of apathy. Within weeks, I inevitably felt like Neo in the Matrix – chained to the time-for-money continuum, trapped in a little box, unable to give my deepest gifts… and by the way, being compensated quite poorly for it.
The most depressing part about all this was when I’d see people who had been in these jobs for longer than I’d been alive and were in a state of zombie-like compliant quasi-misery.
Like moaning dogs lying on nails, too lazy to move, just waiting to die.
I specifically remember during my training at UPS, one of the belt kitchen managers, Scott, pointed to an assistant manager endearingly and said:
“Lisa hasn’t called in a sick day or been late in 17 years. Whaddya think of that?!”
He shook the crap out of my shoulder, and then looked back at me expectantly.
Was he waiting for me to start genuflecting or something?
All I could remember thinking was:
“What the fuck is wrong with these people?”
Was this really something to be proud of?
I quit that job faster than a Taylor Swift switches boyfriends. Sayonara suckas!
Now, at this point you might be thinking “Daniel, stop working freaking hourly wage jobs and go out and get a big boy career you dummy. And stop whining!”
Yeah, I thought about that.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that I could hop around from job to job my whole life and it wouldn’t make any difference. Or, If I wanted to wear my big boy pants, I could use my college degree to get a “career” (this is the adult code word for more complicated or time-consuming job that you do for your entire life) and get paid more money – but in the end the problem wasn’t with the job. And it wasn’t even with the employers.
It was with me. I was the problem.
It wasn’t about getting a job that paid more MONEY. I didn’t care about that. It was about having a job period. It took quite a lot of balls to admit that.
I was having a major case of what my fellow graduates in Communication call “cognitive dissonance” – I was trying to hold two conflicting ideas for my life in my head at the same time. On the one hand, I knew what I wanted. On the other hand, I saw what was available. They didn’t match up. It was causing me a great deal of anxiety.
I think part of the reason for this anxiety was because at a very deep level, I was afraid to admit what I really wanted. I was afraid I’d be called stupid, lazy, a “leech”, childish or impractical. I was afraid of being ridiculed.
I’m not afraid anymore.
You know what I want? I don’t want to work. Like… not ever.
I don’t want to be obligated to appear somewhere at a specific time and perform a task, simply because if I don’t, I won’t be able to feed myself (or my future family).
I don’t want to be told that I don’t have any “sick days” left, that I can’t get that time off for vacation because someone (probably with more seniority in the slave factory) already reserved it or that I won’t be able to make any more money this year.
I don’t want to worry about being laid off or fired. I don’t want to live on someone else’s clock, constantly trying to match someone else’s standards under the treat of poverty and starvation.
I just don’t.
You know what I hate?
I hate when people ask me “what do you do?”
What a dumb question.
What do I do? I don’t DO anything. I AM somebody. I’m not narrowly defined by skills I use to make money.
I can do anything. I can do everything.
And even though I’m doing something today, I may not want to do the same exact thing tomorrow. That should be OK – and it doesn’t make me fickle or indecisive either. It makes me passionate about learning and versatile in my approach to life.
What you do to make money is completely separate from what you do with your time. The whole idea of money is that it’s used to buy more conveniences that give us our time back. Ironically, many people spend all that time trying to get more money.
Am I the only one who feels caught up in the Matrix here?
If it were up to me, you know what I’d do?
I’d spend my life learning languages, traveling, practicing martial arts, reading, eating good food, programming and (someday) raising intelligent, open-eyed children. I would use the experiences gained from a lifetime of passionate learning to create something greater than myself and leave behind a gift that wasn’t here before. At the end of the day, what else is there?
But how can I do all of that if I’m beholden to report somewhere 200 hours a month, for 90% of my life?
Can we just be honest here? Just for a second. Come on now, it’s just you and I. If it were up to you, you wouldn’t go to work tomorrow, would you? Even if you “like” your job, wouldn’t you much rather be doing exactly what you want to do at the pace you want to do it? Aren’t there a million enriching things that you’ve wanted to try, but just can’t get to because your life depends on punching that clock?
Now don’t mistake my message here: the reason you don’t want to work is not because you’re lazy or because you don’t like putting effort into your pursuits. Far from that, actually. It’s because you’d rather put your full energy into the things that really matter to you.
Whatever those things are.
Now, 99% of people will say:
“But Daniel, you have to do SOMETHING for ‘work’. You can’t just be a bum. You need to get a job or something and then do stuff on your free time.”
This thinking is based on the overwhelming cultural construct that says work should be the central focus of your life, and that anything solely meant to enrich yourself should be de-prioritized in favor of “getting ahead” in your career.
Getting ahead where? Where are you running to?
It’s the “deferred life plan”, as Tim Ferris would say. We are rats in an infinite maze, with the same invisible cheese around each corner.
Save, save, save for 50 years, contribute to your 401k and pay your taxes. Budget frugally and don’t do anything “extravagant”. If you’ve done absolutely everything right, and with a bit of luck, hopefully you’ll finally be able to stop working and live the last 20ish years of your life in frugal quietude, clinging to a slipping middle class existence as inflation goes up and your savings decreases.
If that doesn’t work out, you’ll have to join the growing septuagenarian class working at Wal-Mart.
At least now you have time to finally do everything you wanted to do…right?
Sounds bittersweet to me.
I propose another way.
We’ve seen what happens working purely for work’s sake, spending all your time making more money or obsessing about promotions or possessions. You’re ashamed to admit the things that you actually want to do. You’re afraid of being labeled “different”. God forbid someone thinks that you don’t have “work ethic”. This is one of my favorite cultural insults, by the way. It’s as if there were some morality attached to laboring on things that you don’t care about. Since when did capacity to suffer become an ethical issue? I call bullshit.
What about this…
What if you were to make your life and the pursuits that interested you – traveling, learning, physical activities, art, whatever- the center(s) of your life and fit work in like a planet in orbit, designed to support your life and pursuits without completely taking over?
What if your presence wasn’t actually required to generate the resources that support you, and you were left to roam the earth freely?
What would you REALLY do with your life?
Have you ever considered that in a completely digitized society this is a very real possibility?
The how-to in this can be tricky, but far from impossible.
The first key is to figure out how we can manipulate our environments to produce more of this imaginary “currency” we call money without sacrificing the time (which is the real currency). That’s the game.
Most of the time, we go at it the wrong way, trading it 1:1, as if a certain amount of money could equal even a fraction of your precious time. I can’t stress this enough. Time is LITERALLY priceless. It can’t be valued. “I make $30/hour”. So you’re saying your life, these next 60 full minutes of respiration, are worth $30 of imaginary bits? I’d say there’s literally no comparison between the two. It’s apples to potatoes. Completely different. We have to change our perceptions of value and then set systems in place to make the currency come out without the time going to waste. Because, before you know it, the time will be gone…and the money…that was never even real to begin with.
This letter isn’t intended to be a step-by-step guide – it’s intended to make you think. But chew on this – if the Wright brothers, with no formal training, can figure out how to bend a piece of metal and make it fly across the Atlantic ocean…form their dirty shed in rural South Carolina…then you can figure out how to create more income and get your time back. Bet on it.
This isn’t a popular way of thinking, and if you don’t have any friends or role models living like this, it’s hard to imagine that this is even possible.
But as I’ve met more and more incredible people through my blog — people who are living that “fictional” life — I realize that it’s not only very possible, but that there’s a formula to creating these circumstances. It’s not luck, and it’s not voodoo or “positive affirmation”.
In the past 12 months I’ve gotten increasingly closer to this reality.
Are you one of the few who believes a better way is possible, not just for people in books or in the news, but for YOU?